Dino Babers: ‘I still love my islands’

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Oahu-born Dino Babers is teaching Hawaiian at Syracuse University.

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Oahu-born Dino Babers is teaching Hawaiian at Syracuse University.

“They probably won’t be fluent, but I’m teaching them the important words,” Babers says in a phone interview Tuesday. “Aloha, ohana and … okole.”

As in move your okole faster before I kick it?

Babers laughs his hearty laugh and answers. “Absolutely.”

In addition to running Syracuse’s unofficial one-instructor Polynesian Language department, the keiki o ka aina and University of Hawaii alumnus is also the head football coach at a school much better known for producing basketball championships and sportscasters.

He was born in Hawaii a few days before Barack Obama, and jokes about his white-print-on-black-background birth certificate from the pink military hospital looking more strange than the future president’s from Kapiolani Medical Center.

At 56, he is both a rising star and a 35-year overnight success.

Following a brief speed bump when he was demoted from offensive coordinator at Texas A&M in 2002, Babers’ stock has consistently trended up.

Now it’s through the roof of the Carrier Dome.

Syracuse’s 27-24 win over No. 2-ranked Clemson last Friday is the biggest upset in college football this year, and one of the biggest in Orange history.

He didn’t get his first head coaching job until five years ago, when he took over at Eastern Illinois. In his four seasons there and at Bowling Green, Babers’ teams went 37-16, winning conference or division championships every year.

Now he’s at the helm at a Power 5 school, and proving his rapid-fire spread offense can win at the highest college level, too. In Babers’ second year at Syracuse it is 4-3 after the Clemson win, matching last year’s victory total. One of the 2016 wins was a 31-17 upset of Virginia Tech.

Orange fans are beginning to fear a short stay for Babers, and a #PayDino campaign is underway.

As a private institution, Syracuse is not required to release salary information. The last reported annual pay for an Orange head football coach was $1.5 million in 2014-15 for Scott Shafer, Babers’ predecessor. According to information published last year, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher was the highest paid ACC coach at $5.25 million per year. Dabo Sweeney of Clemson was next at $4.42 million.

Programs with the deepest pockets looking for a new coach are likely to court Babers when the annual rite of firings and hirings commences.

He isn’t worried about that now. Babers’ concern is keeping his team focused as it hits the road to play No. 8 Miami on Saturday.

He gave the players three days off before getting back to business.

“First thing is I let them enjoy the win. You can’t act like it’s just another win. You need to ride the wave, like at Bellows.

“I told them take care of one another, go to class, and when you come back Tuesday, forget about (beating Clemson). We’re playing a fine Hurricane team,” says Babers, whose many media appearances since beating Clemson include “Mike and Mike” and “The Paul Finebaum Show” and everything in between. “This is my last interview, and in an hour-and-a-half I will get a chance to reiterate that we are playing a very good team again. I tell them the truth. Hopefully they can handle the truth and we go from there.”

UH fans have followed Babers’ career closely, many hoping the former Rainbow Warrior running back-linebacker-safety would end up back in Manoa. But the timing was never quite right. And let’s face it: Hawaii can’t afford Babers.

“I still love my islands,” he says.

Why wouldn’t he? This is where he was born, where he went to college and where he met his wife (Sue Hemenway, who played volleyball at UH).

It’s also where he got his start as a graduate assistant coach.

His assistant head coach is another former UH player, Kim McCloud. And he’s already successfully recruited a Hawaii player, freshman kicker Jeffrey Chan from Punahou.

He counts Dick Tomey, George Lumpkin, Bob Wagner, Daryl Edralin and June Jones among his many coaching mentors.

“I really gravitated to June. I liked talking to him,” Babers said.

It shows in his offense, which also has signs of input from Mike Martz and several other coaching trees that can claim Babers as a branch.

One of his proudest moments is beating Jones in chess.

“He said he’d never lost to a college student before,” Babers says. “But I did.”

UH teammate Tim Lyons, the receiver-turned-quarterback who lead UH to a 7-0 start in 1981, says Babers’ competitive streak has always been off-the-charts.

“He will do anything within the rules to gain an advantage to win,” Lyons says, recalling a game of Risk from their freshman year.

“Duane Coleman and I are holding our own until Dino declares he gets to grab another large group of armies due to some arcane rule,” says Lyons. “We said show us and he cited the page number and down at the bottom in small print was some squirrelly rule that was arguable but it was there. He reads rule books looking for stuff like that.”

Coleman and Lyons then formed an alliance and “wiped Dino off the board,” according to Lyons.

But that didn’t stop the relentless Babers. There’s also a story about a family volleyball game; for a reasonable facsimile, google “Meet The Parents” and “volleyball.”

But teammates also remember him as a friendly guy who got along with everyone.

“With the obvious cultural diversity of our teams at UH, Dino was one of the few players that could easily traverse each group while making everyone feel comfortable in his presence,” said Joe Nobles, a starting wide receiver at UH. “Strange thing though. He would watch endless reruns of ‘Westside Story’ in his dorm room. We couldn’t figure that one out. Great guy and teammate.”

His dad, Luther, was a career Navy man stationed at Pearl Harbor when Babers was born. The family also lived in Norfolk, Va., and then San Diego where Babers starred at powerhouse Morse High.

He said he knew he would be a coach from the time he was 6 years old.

“I was a fat little kid, and my brothers forced me to go outside and play and beat me up,” he says. “Eventually that changed.”

Babers didn’t play a lot in college until carrying the ball 76 times for 295 yards and three touchdowns in his senior year of 1983. But the time spent watching obviously was not wasted.

He hasn’t been back to Hawaii since recruiting current Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill from Kamehameha to Eastern Illinois, and Babers would love a homecoming on Christmas Eve.

“You guys gotta get us in that bowl game,” Babers said.

First they have to get themselves in by winning at least a couple more games.

Also, the Hawaii Bowl’s matchup is supposed to be teams from the American Conference and the Mountain West. But you never know, stranger things have happened when figuring out where all the pieces in the bowl puzzle go.

And Syracuse football is trending up, like its rock-star coach. Last weekend was likely a great one for recruiting in the afterglow of knocking off the Tigers and becoming the toast of the college football world.

“I’m not surprised by the level of success he is enjoying,” Lyons says. “He can walk into a recruiting situation and quickly connect with people, earn their trust, and by end of conversation know what’s important to the family.”

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If he wasn’t the “it” guy before, he is now.

Not bad for a guy who was grinding it out as an assistant for 30 years.